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Robert Dixon's Military Pension Synopsis

The National Archives and Records Administration provided a complete copy of Robert A. Dixon's Civil War pension records in June of 2003. Ninety pages of legal size photocopies, documents dated from February 1892 to January 1926, confirmed, among other things, that big government was alive and well more than a century ago. All of the documents were on printed government forms. The forms had been completed in ink, handwritten and quite legible, with the exception of some of the medical doctors' scrawl. After 1917, a few of the forms were completed using a typewriter.

The following synopsis is taken from those records, with text in quotation marks transcribed to the best of my ability.

In September 1861, at age twenty six, Robert Dixon enlisted for Civil War service as a corporal in Company "E" of the 55th Illinois Volunteer Infantry. He served almost exactly four years, with only one thirty day furlough in the spring of 1864. His regiment re-enlisted after three years of service, with the understanding that they would elect their own officers, and Robert was elected Lieutenant. He mustered out as a Captain in August 1865, one of only ten men in his company that had never been wounded.

He returned to Downers Grove, Illinois; about twenty miles west of Chicago. On Christmas day, 1869 he married Sarah Jane Rowland. The couple bore two daughters and two sons between 1872 and 1878. In October of 1882 Robert moved his family to a homestead farm near what would become Vienna, South Dakota. (In South Dakota, Vienna is pronounced "v-eye-enna.")

In February 1892, at age fifty six, Robert submitted a Declaration for Invalid Pension.

The Pension Act of 1890 authorized pensions for "permanent physical disability not due to vicious habits." Furthermore, the disability "need not have originated in service." Robert declared himself "unable to earn support, by manual labor, by reason of dyspepsia, disease of the liver, piles, and premature senile debility and rupture (hernia)." In July 1892 he submitted an extensive physical, provided by a doctor near his home in Vienna.

When the pension wasn't quickly approved, in June 1893 Robert submitted affidavits from himself and from several members of his community to support his claims. In one of these, signed by him, we find the following: "He had dyspepsia and liver disease in the army but being so far removed from that period he is unable to prove it under the old law hence he applied under the new law, that his said diseases came on so gradually he is unable to say just at what particular time or place he first noted them, that he has every reason to believe and does believe the first was brought about by unwholesome water and diet such as greasy fat bacon and that his disease of liver was brought about by exposure and malaria, that his hernia came on ten years ago this spring, as he supposes by reason of work done on the farm, his piles without any known cause so far as affiant knows came on about twelve years ago, that in the fall of 1884 he received an accidental gunshot wound on the right side of his head and in his right shoulder from which he is threatened with paralysis." (Four years, more than twenty major battles in the Civil War without a scratch, and he gets shot by accident in South Dakota.)

The Department of the Interior requested more proof of disability. Subsequent physicals and affidavits in late 1893 and 1894 get graphic and ugly. Robert's "hens egg" sized hernia required him to wear a truss for more than a decade (surgery to repair the intestinal wall was not available in the 1890's). An "external pile tumor the size of a walnut," requires no further comment. And then: "Tongue large, flabby, coated . . . muscles soft and flabby . . . body rather poorly nourished and thin . . . breath loaded and offensive . . . muscular movements slow and feeble."

On December 14, 1894, Robert's pension was approved and he began to receive the princely sum of $6 per month.

In November of 1895, now sixty years old and ever the glutton for punishment, he filed a Declaration for Increase. He affirms: "That he is at this time totally incapacitated for the performance of any manual labor . . . his disabilities are permanent and the degree of disabilities will never grow less but must in the nature of things grow worse, hence he believes himself to be justly and legally entitled to the maximum rate provided for under the act of June 27th 1890, that three score years of his life is gone and with it his health and physical strength, saying nothing of his pains and continuous suffering." More physicals, more affidavits - and in February 1898 his request for increase is formally denied.

In 1904 he became eligible for $12 per month when he reached age 70. I have several records, both family and official, that indicate Robert was born on November 8th, 1835. Up to this point the forms in his pension file support the 1835 date. But he now declares that he was born November 8th, 1834. An affidavit to that effect states: "his father's Family Bible containing the record of his birth was destroyed by fire in the city of Chicago in the winter of 1849-50." In November 1904 the $12 rate is approved. In November 1907 the pension increases to $15 per month, in 1909 to $20 and in 1913 to $30; all after appropriate applications and approvals.

On February 22nd, 1917, Robert Dixon died. He was eighty two years old (if he was born in 1834) and had probably outlived many of the doctors who declared him "invalid."

The pension records then include some thirty pages of documents in which Sarah J. Dixon applies for a widow's pension, and submits affidavits to prove her birth, her marriage and the fact that she lived with Robert until his death. She is finally approved to receive first $20, then $25 per month until her death in 1925.

These checks don't seem to represent large sums of money, even adjusted for inflation. $6 in 1894 equates to about $120 today, and $30 in 1913 would be about $555. The difference is in what the dollars would buy. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century the standards of living simply didn't compare to ours, so it is hard to imagine how important these funds were. We do know that farmers, even now, can be "cash poor," and the effort Robert and Sarah expended to secure these checks makes their value obvious.

Robert Dixon's physical examinations also offer a fascinating insight into the physical stature of our Civil War veteran. He was a respected warrior, elected to lead his men. He was a pioneer, the first settler in Dixon Township (it was named for him) South Dakota. So my imagination conjured Fess Parker and John Wayne. Here is his description: Complexion, dark; hair, dark; eyes, blue; height, 5 ft. 3 in.; weight, 135 lb.

Anne Kerns, granddaughter of my aunt Marjorie, has Robert's Civil War uniform blouse. She was not surprised that he was small. The blouse had a moment of glory in a show near her home in Redding, California; where the model was her operation manager's ten year old son. She said: "Anthony's arms were a little short, but the jacket fit him across the chest and shoulders."

Despite his longevity, we can also assume Robert was not particularly healthy. Even if we allow for some hyperbole, too many doctors painted too grim a picture of Robert after age sixty. This conclusion is also supported by the census records from his South Dakota home.

In the 1900 Census (where he reports his date of birth as November 1835 and his age as 64) he lives with his wife and three grown children, Robert R., age 27, Stephen, age 24, and Sadie, age 21. His eldest daughter, Mary Celia, is living about three miles away with her new husband and two small children. By 1905, in a state census, Mary Celia and her family have moved back to the Dixon land. In 1910 Mary C. and family, Steven and family, and Robert R. (a 36 year old bachelor) are all living on the Dixon compound. Mary C. and her family left South Dakota for California in 1917, very shortly after Robert A. died. From all of this data, I'm willing to bet Robert required lots of attention and care during the last two decades of his life.

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Updated February 9, 2009
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